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16. The Sabbath Controversy in the Gospels


There are few things I enjoy more than watching a master craftsman at his trade. I delight at watching a football player like Bill Bates on a safety blitz, or like Ed Jones sacking the opposing quarterback. I love to watch John Maurer skillfully fashioning a piece of wood, a master musician playing his instrument, or an artist catching the essence of a segment of life. One my great joys this past week has been to closely observe the skillfulness of our Lord in His handling of the Old Testament Scriptures. Our study this week of the “Sabbath controversy” in the Gospels will enable each of us to look on with amazement at the ease and skill with which our Lord handles the Old Testament text.

In our lesson last week, we saw how the Sabbath was established in principle in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God rested on the seventh day, having finished the work of creation. Because of this, God blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it—set it apart. It is not until Exodus chapter 16 that the seventh day was divinely prescribed as a day of resting from the harvesting of manna. In chapter 20 of Exodus the Sabbath became the focus of the Fourth Commandment. Keeping this day holy required that the Israelites finish their week’s work by the end of the sixth day, so that the seventh could be a day in which men abstained from the normal occupations of the other six. In Exodus chapter 31, the keeping of the Sabbath was declared to be a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty prescribed for any violator of this commandment.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament further clarification was given regarding the keeping of this commandment. Sabbath rest was further defined in terms of changing conditions. Even the land was to have its rest every seventh year. Further, the emphasis shifts from a cessation of normal activities to the ways in which the Israelite should worship God on the Sabbath. The prophets pointed out abuses of the Sabbath and urged the Israelites to keep the Sabbath “in spirit and truth.” The nation was warned that persistent disregard of the sanctity of the Sabbath would lead to the judgment of being thrust from the land and sent into captivity.

We have seen throughout the Old Testament an ongoing clarification and expansion of the Sabbath commandment. During the 400 “silent years” between the two testaments a great deal of attention was given to the interpretation of the Law (in general) and of the Sabbath (in particular). The detail to which the inspired writers went was nothing compared to the embellishments performed on the Sabbath commandment by the Jewish scholars and religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. We would not be correct to conclude that all of these efforts to clarify the Law are silly and senseless. While the method of interpretation may be wrong, not to mention the conclusions reached, there was ample motivation for probing the obligation of the individual Israelite to the Fourth Commandment. During the Maccabbean Period (a century or so prior to the coming of Christ) a 1,000 Jews had been slaughtered because they were attacked on the Sabbath and would not break the Sabbath to defend themselves. Little wonder, then, that Jewish scholars sought to clarify the Sabbath commandment.

A large body of teaching regarding the interpretation of the Sabbath thus began to emerge before and after the coming of Christ. These interpretations were first preserved and passed on as oral traditions and then later put into writing. In the third century A. D. a written compilation of the oral traditions of the scribes was completed, which was known as the Mishnah. It contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law, requiring about 800 pages in English.250 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are called Talmuds. “Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are 12 printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are 60 printed volumes.”251

The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.252

We can hardly be surprised to find a head-on collision between the scribes and Pharisees and our Lord over the issue of the Sabbath. The gospel writers record numerous occasions when the Jewish religious leaders clashed with Jesus over the interpretation of the Sabbath. Almost always this resulted from an incident in which are Lord “violated the Sabbath” according to the legalistic teachings and interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. Such incidents are helpful to us in our study of the Sabbath, for they allow us to see some of the ways in which the Bible was wrongly interpreted, as well as the true interpretation of the Sabbath as given by our Lord. Let us learn from the errors of the Jewish religious leaders, and especially from the divine interpretation of the Sabbath by our Lord.

Our method in this message will be to consider a few of the key “Sabbath texts” in the gospels, and to attempt to learn how the legalistic interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees was in error. Further, we will compare and contrast the wrong interpretation with the correct interpretation of our Lord. Then, at the end of the lesson we will try to summarize our Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath, and to seek to discover some pertinent principles which are relevant to our lives as Christians. In the next (and final) lesson on the Sabbath we will see how the apostles interpreted the Sabbath and how the New Testament church sought to apply the Sabbath in a new dispensation. For now, let us turn to the gospels of the New Testament to see how our Lord’s view of the Sabbath differed from that of religious leaders of His day.

Matthew 12:1-14

A seemingly innocent act on the part of our Lord’s disciples precipitated an incident in which the Pharisees challenged the Lord Jesus to defend or denounce His disciples: “At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grain fields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:1-2).

Let us begin by gaining a sense of the context, gaining an overview of the passage. These verses describe two separate incidents: (1) the protest of the Pharisees that Jesus’ disciples violated the Sabbath by gathering grain and eating it as they walked through the fields; and (2) the issue raised by the synagogue leaders,253 knowing Jesus was about to heal the man with the withered hand. The Savior meets Jewish objections in the first instance by citing two incidents in the Old Testament where people were vindicated for technically breaking the Sabbath: David, when he took the sacred shewbread and shared it with his men, and the Old Testament priests, who regularly violate the Sabbath by working at their priestly jobs on this day.

Undaunted by the challenge of the Pharisees, our Lord catches His opponents completely off guard by referring to an Old Testament text which remarkably paralleled this situation: “But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?’” (Matthew 12:3-4).

Before looking at the response of our Lord, let us make several important observations about what is happening here that is foundational to an accurate interpretation of this text.

(1) Our Lord was not being accused of wrongdoing here. The issue here is the “harvesting” and “threshing” of grain by our Lord’s disciples. Jesus was being challenged to either condemn the deeds of His disciples or to condone them, thereby opposing the authority and the interpretation of the Pharisees.

(2) While the Torah (the Law of Moses) nowhere condemns such an act, the Halakah (the Jewish collection of interpretations) did.

(3) Amazingly, Jesus granted the assumption that the actions of His disciples was “work” and thus a breaking of the Sabbath.

These three facts provided the Lord with a golden opportunity to avoid the issue of the Sabbath, and to concentrate only on the technical questions involved. Often, Jesus did avoid “creating a scene,” whether it be that of performing a miracle publicly, or that of inciting a dispute prematurely between Himself and His adversaries. Here, Jesus could have referred His critics to His disciples, since He had not gathered any heads of grain for Himself, nor had He eaten any. He could have pointed to the fact that the Torah nowhere called such a minimal effort work, and that this was only the fallacious conclusion of some misguided, knit-picking scholars. Instead, Jesus chose to let these technical matters go by the boards. He wanted to discuss the interpretation of the Sabbath and His activities which could be construed to be a breaking of the Fourth Commandment. Here is a matter Jesus did want to discuss, and He sidestepped every peripheral issue to get to the heart of the matter.

Bearing these things in mind, notice how skillfully our Lord answered the challenge of the Pharisees. Knowing full well that He would not change the Pharisees’ minds about the disciples’ actions being viewed as work, Jesus allowed the allegation of Sabbath-breaking to go unchallenged (even though wrong). Our Lord then turned His critics’ attention to an Old Testament event which beautifully paralleled His own situation in critical points. He points to the time when David was fleeing from Saul, accompanied by a few men, and when David and his hungry men took consecrated bread from Ahimelech the priest and ate it (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-9). Note the common denominators of both incidents, which make the Old Testament case a precedent for our Lord’s actions, along with His followers.

(1) David and the Lord both had followers with them, who participated in their “Sabbath-breaking”.254

(2) Food was eaten to alleviate hunger. Hunger prompted Jesus’ disciples to pluck the grain, just as it necessitated David and his men eating the sacred bread.

(3) Something which was sanctified, set apart for a special use, was profaned by being put to a common use. In David’s case, sanctified bread, set apart for use only by the priests’ was eaten. The Lord’s disciples, too, profaned the Sabbath (which was sanctified) by gathering grain, which was common labor.

(4) There were considerations which justified actions that normally would have been condemned as Law-breaking.

We can see that the similarities in these two situations are similar enough so that the justification for David’s actions (and, of course, his men) might also vindicate our Lord’s disciples from the charge of Law-breaking. Let us pay close attention to the argument which our Lord puts forward here, for it is a master-stroke.

First, our Lord assumes that the actions of David and his men are acceptable to the Judaism of His day,255 and thus, to His adversaries. Nobody wanted to accuse David of wrong-doing here. Second, if this is so, then the Pharisees granted exceptions to the Law. Third, if Law-breaking was allowed in some cases, it must be to some higher reason or consideration. What, then, are the reasons for which David could be acquitted, and for which our Lord and His disciples could be as well?

1 Samuel 21, David did not specifically ask for any of the sacred bread, that is all that was at hand. Ahimelech volunteered to give David some of this bread so long as his men had not been defiled. I think that there were three reasons why Ahimelech gave this bread without reservation: (1) Ahimelech did not find the Law so rigid as to prohibit meeting the needs of men under such special circumstances. (2) He believed that David had come from the king. (3) He believed that David had been sent on an important assignment by the king. These considerations led the priest to the conclusion that the prohibition of the Law could be set aside in the case of David and his men. Note well that Ahimelech did not cast aside his obligation to preserve the sanctity of the bread. He did insist that David’s men must be free from defilement. One must assume that if this condition were not met, the bread would not have been given these men. The sanctified bread was not profaned in the process.

Ahimelech had some good reasons for giving David and his men bread. Nevertheless, these were probably not the same reasons the Jewish scholars and teachers had for justifying this act of David. My opinion is that they focused on who David was. Since David was God’s anointed, Israel’s next king, it was right for he and his men to eat the consecrated bread and thus to save their lives. Their motto might have been, “better fed than dead.” David’s men could well eat the consecrated bread because of whom it was they followed. The implications for Jesus’ followers should not have passed them by. Luke, in his account of the same event, adds this statement of our Lord, which presses home the point: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5).0 If for David’s sake (and thus Israel’s) the Law could be temporarily and technically violated, how much more for the sake of his Lord?

These are all good reasons, and may very well be implied in our Lord’s words to the Pharisees. I think, however, that there was one simple reason which our Lord sought to emphasize above all others—David and his men should have been fed the sacred bread because they were hungry and this was the only food available. The hunger factor is clearly stated by our Lord (Matthew 12:1, 3). Certain things were sanctified, set apart by God, to teach the Israelites about sanctification, not to cause them hardship and suffering. Thus, when Law-keeping would endanger David’s life or the lives of his men, the practice of the Law could be modified (not ignored altogether) to meet the needs of men.

Mark presses this point in his account of the same incident when he records this statement of our Lord: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). If the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and not man for the benefit of the Sabbath, then when a particular Sabbath practice posed a hardship on man, it may legitimately, in some exceptional cases, be set aside.1 How beautifully Jesus turned the tables on His adversaries. It was not He who was unbiblical, they were out of step with the Scriptures.

If the Pharisees thought they had Jesus at a disadvantage in the matter of His disciples’ actions in the grain fields, they were wrong. After the first argument in verses 3 and 4, the Pharisees’ heads must have been spinning, but rather to stop here, suggesting He had but one text in support of His thesis, Jesus struck a second blow, providing yet another precedent for His actions from the Old Testament Scriptures in verses 5-8:

“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5-8).

Not only was David vindicated in the Scriptures and by the Pharisees for partaking of the consecrated bread, along with his followers, the priests who ministered in the temple on the Sabbath were justified in “breaking the Sabbath Law” as well. The argument in verse 5 is meticulous. It is not the greatness of the priests which justified their violation of the Fourth Commandment—it was the greatness of the temple, the greatness of the cause or the work in which the were engaged. No Jew needed to be convinced of the greatness of the temple, and thus temple service was a readily accepted justification for the priests working on the Sabbath.

These two cases which our Lord has cited might be used as precedents for His own actions and attitude toward the Sabbath, but He is not content to leave the matter at that. Jesus is no mere equal to David and to the priests, to be covered by the precedent they have set. He is their superior, their Sovereign. Thus, in the closing words of this argument, the Lord Jesus uses this occasion to boldly claim His deity, which not only allows Him to technically violate the Sabbath, it gives Him the freedom to set it aside altogether if He pleases.

As great as the temple might be to the Pharisee, our Lord claims to be “greater than the temple” (v. 6). By claiming as well to be “Lord of the Sabbath” He is also claiming to be greater than David, or any other man. Why was Jesus justified in doing what He did? Because He who is God can do as He pleases. If God established the Sabbath, and man was commanded to imitate Him in resting on the seventh day, then Jesus, as God, can do away with it, working on it if He pleases, and commanding others to do likewise. God can declare the Sabbath and He can disregard it, too.

Verse 7 strikes at the heart of the problem of His adversaries: they have focused on the mechanical, ritualistic, aspects of the Sabbath, and in so doing they have failed to meet its essence, which is mercy and compassion. They have lingered long over the letter of the Law, but they have missed its spirit.

When Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” (6:6),2 He wields a double-edged sword. In the first place, He stresses the overriding principle of compassion. For David to have fed his men the consecrated bread may have been a technical violation of the Law, but it was an act of compassion, thus complying with the spirit of that Law. The same can be said for the disciples’ eating the grain on that Sabbath day. Second, the context of this quotation serves as a veiled rebuke to the Pharisees, for in Hosea legalism is condemned, and that condemnation is often directed against the leaders of the nation Israel (cf. Hosea 5:1-2; 6:9).

The Healing of the Withered Hand
(Matthew 12:9-14)

And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—in order that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:9-14).

The situation is quite different here. It is not the actions of the Lord’s disciples which are at issue, but the anticipated healing of the man with the withered hand. The wickedness of the opponents of our Lord is clearly demonstrated in this text. Jesus departed from the previous debate over the Sabbath and, on the Sabbath, enters the synagogue, apparently the one which His opponents from the last encounter normally attended. This is signaled by the designation “their synagogue” in verse 9.

While we are not told all of the details, it seems relatively clear that Jesus saw the man as he entered the synagogue. That man, if he knew who Jesus was, would have petitioned Him to heal him. Jesus must have stopped at the man’s request and the Pharisees knew that a healing was about to take place. They seized this opportunity to raise a question about the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath. They did this knowing that Jesus would thus have to take a stand on the Sabbath and also would perform the healing, thus deliberately violating the Law as they interpreted it. Jesus was, in their minds, going to end up “between a rock and a hard place.”

The only “hard place” was that in which our Lord’s adversaries would find themselves by the time His argument was concluded. Jesus took a totally different tack in defending His actions here. He answered their question with one of His own. Here, He did not focus on Himself, nor on the Old Testament Scriptures, but on His adversaries and on His ailing friend nearby. He exposes their hypocrisy by comparing what they justified in themselves with what they condemned in Jesus.

Jesus wished to point out the glaring inconsistency of the Pharisees by showing their double standard in interpreting and applying the Law: one set of standards for themselves; another when judging Him. When it came to a mishap endangering one of their own animals, they had no qualms in “laboring” (thus breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law) to rescue it from danger (v. 11). If they valued their cattle so much that they would risk violating the Sabbath, could Jesus be wrong in placing a higher value on an ailing man by healing him on the Sabbath?

The Sabbath Commandment was not to be misinterpreted so as to deprive one of the ability to do good to another in need. The compassion in which the Lord delighted in principle (Hosea 6:6), was the compassion which needed to be applied in particular on this Sabbath day—and was, when Jesus commanded that the man stretch out his hand, so as to be healed (v. 13). While good men would have rejoiced (and some surely did), the adversaries of our Lord went out, counseling together as to how to do away with Him (v. 14). Thus, the Law, if given for man’s good, does not command us to do evil by neglecting to do good to those in need.

John 5:1-18

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. … And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And immediately the man became well, and took up his pallet and began to walk. Now it was the Sabbath on that day. Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” But he who was healed did not know who it was; for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:2, 5-18).

Time will not permit a thorough study of this text, but we will focus our attention on the highlights of the passage as they relate to the Sabbath controversy. Our Lord not only commanded the man to rise up (thus, to be healed), but also to carry his pallet, his bed (thus, technically violating the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath Law). Initially, the Jews challenged the healed man for violation of the Sabbath. The man was undaunted, believing that anyone who had the power to heal him also had the authority to tell him to carry his bed. Jesus had silently slipped away from the scene, so that the man had not discovered His name.

Later, Jesus found the man, urging him to sin no more, lest greater evil befall him. It was at this time that the man learned his healer’s name was Jesus, and so he reported this to the Jews. This resulted in the Jews turning their wrath toward the Lord Jesus, persecuting Him for His Sabbath violation. Our Lord’s one sentence response is one of the most profound statements in the gospels: “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). This bold statement indicates a significant change in God’s dealings with Israel, a change so dramatic that it required a response which appeared to be a violation of the Old Testament Law, particularly the Fourth Commandment. Let us consider the nature of this change.

(1) Jesus claimed that the Father is no longer resting, but is at work, even on the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest of God, described in Genesis 2:1-3, was the result of His having finished the work of creation. The work which God was then undertaking in the coming of Christ was the work of redemption. There is thus a change of program, from that of creation (completed) to that of redemption (in process). If Jesus was right (and He surely was) God was also a Sabbath-breaker, when viewed according to the former standard of the Fourth Commandment as interpreted by the Jews. David’s men could break the Law by eating consecrated bread because their leader did. Jesus’ followers could “harvest” grain on the Sabbath, if it was right for their leader to do so. And now, Jesus Himself can break the Sabbath because God the Father was doing it.

(2) The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, but this sign was to be set aside, along with the covenant, due to the new covenant which Christ would institute by His redemptive work on the cross.

(3) While obedience to God was once manifested by imitating God in ceasing from labor, obedience to God now required the imitation of God in labor. Since God was at work up to and including that very moment (which was on the Sabbath), imitating God required working on the Sabbath as well.

(4) Jesus here not only identified Himself with God, He identified Himself as God. This is evident from the reaction of the Jews to Jesus’ words:

For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:18).

John 7:21-24

Jesus answered and said to them, “I did one deed, and you all marvel. On this account Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers); and on the Sabbath you circumcise a man. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:21-24).

The debate which began in John chapter 5 was not finished, and so the charge of a “violation of the Sabbath” which was leveled against the Lord Jesus there is picked up again in chapter 7. Verses 21 and 23 of chapter 7 point back to the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus gives one further response in verses 22 and 23 which provides yet another argument in His defense with regard to the charge of breaking the Sabbath by the healing of this man.

When the keeping of the Sabbath is to be practiced according to the interpretation of the Pharisees, there was yet another group of Sabbath-breakers which they must reckon with: those parents who circumcised their sons on the Sabbath. From the legalistic point of view of the Pharisees, it was possible for two of God’s commandments to conflict with each other. The Law of Moses required that a new son must be circumcised on his 8th day (Lev. 12:3). If this day happened to fall on the Sabbath, the Jews who condemned Jesus for healing on this day would themselves circumcise their sons on the same day, and without any sense of guilt. Our Lord’s accusers were once again found to be hypocritical, and superficial in their concept of true obedience.

On the surface, circumcising a son on the Sabbath was an infraction of the letter of the Sabbath Law. In reality, circumcising on the Sabbath was keeping the Sabbath in terms of the spirit of the Law. Righteous judgment must look deeper than just at the outward appearance of an act. The Pharisees were being hypocritical, for they judged Jesus according to a different standard than that by which they judged their own actions.


Our Lord’s commentary on the Fourth Commandment is of great importance and relevance to contemporary Christians. Let us explore some of the implications of His teaching on the Sabbath as we conclude this lesson.

The first lesson which we should learn from the Sabbath controversy in the gospels is that the central and foundational issue underlying the controversy is not Jesus’ interpretation, but Jesus’ identity. The Jews sought to put Jesus to death as a result of His defense. The reason was not only because those who opposed Him were put to shame, but because the Sabbath controversy was but further proof that Jesus was God incarnate.

When you read through the gospels carefully, you will discover that at the outset of His ministry Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath, but that they were not challenged.3 What caused the change? What made the “violation of the Sabbath” such a heated issue? The answer is this: Jesus had clearly claimed to be God incarnate. The Sabbath controversy was therefore the attempt to prove Jesus a Law-breaker, thus proving that such a “sinner” could not be God: “Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, ‘This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others were saying, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And there was a division among them” (John 9:16).

The Gospel of Mark illustrates the sequence of events which led to the Sabbath controversy. In 1:21-28 Jesus cast an unclean spirit from a man in a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, yet there was no objection raised, only praise. In chapter 2 Jesus first forgave the sins of the paralytic who had been lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus was speaking. The scribes reasoned that only God could forgive sins, and thus that Jesus was making the claim to be God. Thus, in the closing verses of chapter 2 the Sabbath controversy is commenced. The Sabbath issue was but a symptom problem, an attempt to prove Jesus to be a sinner, and not the Son of God. This debate, like countless other debates throughout church history, was not a search for truth but an attempt to squelch the truth.

The identity of Jesus as the Son of God was the heart of the Sabbath issue. Jesus could work on the Sabbath because He was the Son of God (John 5:16-17), One greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6), and greater than David—Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). Since God the Father was the Sabbath maker, Jesus, as God, can not only break the Sabbath, He can abolish it altogether. As God, Jesus could work on the Sabbath, and more than this, He could offer men true rest, a rest far superior to the Old Testament Sabbath rest, and surely far better than any rest which the Pharisees had to offer. It is no accident that these verses immediately precede the great Sabbath debate in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

There is only one true rest, my friend, and that is the rest which Jesus Christ gives, the rest of forgiveness of sins, the rest of ceasing from striving to be holy, and of being found holy in Him. I pray that this rest is yours.

Second, we learn that the fundamental difference between the interpretation of Jesus and that of the Pharisees was the difference between the precepts of Scripture and the principles of Scripture. If we are to understand the difference between a precept and a principle, we must first define each of these terms and then differentiate between them.



An example of a precept is: “You cannot go to the store with Sally today.” A principle would be: “I don’t like you spending time with Sally, so don’t associate with her.” In the precept, a specific action is prohibited. In the principle, a general course of action is prescribed.

Our children love rules, not because of their restrictiveness, but because of the ease with which we can overcome them. In the case of the precept “You cannot go to the store with Sally today,” our children can spend time with Sally, just so long as they don’t go to the store. They can even go to the store with her, so long as it is not today. Precepts direct our actions in particular; principles guide our conduct in general.

The difference between the Pharisees and Jesus was the difference between viewing the Old Testament only as precepts and understanding it as teaching principles which guide men’s lives in the application of its precepts, and when there are no precepts which apply to our specific predicament. To the Pharisees, the essence of the Fourth Commandment was this precept: Thou shalt not work. To the Lord Jesus, the essence of this commandment was this principle: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. One could cease from work on the Sabbath (as the Pharisees did) without keeping the Sabbath holy. Contrarily, Jesus (and others, such as the temple priests) could also observe the Sabbath as a holy day by working on it. The Pharisees were so committed to the precept of not working that they neglected—indeed violated—the principle of keeping the Sabbath holy.

The Sermon on the Mount provides us with another example of how our Lord’s method of interpreting the (Old Testament) Scriptures differed from that of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisaical method of interpreting the Old Testament commandments looked at them only as precepts, specific rules for specific situations. Where the Old Testament was to general, they added particulars, thus the volumes of Jewish commentaries on the commentaries of the Law.

The Lord did not set aside any of the Old Testament precepts, but He did press beyond the precept to the underlying principle. Thus, the Pharisee could think of himself as a Law-keeper if he did not kill anyone and did not commit adultery. Jesus sought to show these legalists that they did not go far enough. To the Lord Jesus, anger was murder and lust was adultery, in principle, and thus was sin to be avoided.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should seek to find only the principles of the Bible and forget the precepts. I am saying that we can only properly understand and keep the precepts of the Bible by following the principles of the Bible. Both principle and precept are necessary, but the former takes precedence over the latter.

In distinguishing precepts from principles we are not engaging in mere scholastic calisthenics. This is a very practical necessity for every Christian. Allow me to show you the practicality of differentiating between precepts and principles in two ways. The first has to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New. The second has to do with the vital link between Christian ethics and biblical principles, as well as that between Christian legalism and biblical precept (without biblical principle).

When we come to the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Scriptures, we must do so on the premise that, “All Scripture [specifically the Old Testament is in view here] is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

How can we apply the precepts of the Old Testament when they are given to a different people (the Jews), in a different dispensation, and with a culture and lifestyle that is foreign to our own? The answer: by determining the principle underlying the precept. Sometimes that principle is readily evident (as in the case with the Sabbath). At other times, the principle is hidden within the precept. That is why meditation is necessary to understand God’s Law.

On the surface, nothing could seem more irrelevant to the North Dallas Christian than the commandment, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4). As a precept, this commandment would only relate to us if we owned oxen and raised grain. As a precept, therefore, this commandment is irrelevant to today’s Christian. As a principle-conveying commandment, it has tremendous implications. The ox and the grain are incidental, illustrative of the principle that the one who works ought to benefit from his labor. Paul therefore appeals to this passage when he claims the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-14).

Another Old Testament commandment reads: “You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). The fact that this command is found three times should suggest it has something important to teach us. Since you and I do not raise (or eat) goats, this command has no relevance to us as a precept. The principle underlying it is most relevant to us, as I will attempt to show.

Now no Jew was to feel guilty about drinking goat’s milk. Neither was it wrong to eat a young kid; even when boiled in the milk of another goat. But when a kid was boiled in the milk of its mother, that was going too far. This is because there is a special relationship between the “kid” and its “mother,” the relationship between mother and child (offspring). The milk is the God-given provision of the mother to sustain and strengthen its offspring. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to be insensitive to the relationship of mother, milk, and offspring. The milk which was divinely intended to preserve and promote the life of the kid is being used to destroy that kid (at least from the point of view of the mother goat). How insensitive.

To use that which was designed to preserve life for the purpose of destroying it was forbidden. Every pregnant woman who is considering an abortion should give careful thought to the principle behind this precept about goats, kids, and milk. The uterus of the woman is a place of safety, a means of protecting the child and promoting life and growth, and yet some women go to the abortionist and have them invade their womb and slaughter their child in that place of sanctity and safety. How cruel! How insensitive! How closely this act, in principle, comes to willfully rebelling against God’s commandment.

The distinction between precept and principle is also necessary when we attempt to interpret and apply the teachings of the New Testament to our lives today. The differences between the New Testament world and our own are many, and often we must interpret and apply the precepts of the New Testament in the light of the principle underlying them. For example, this frequently repeated precept is one which few Christians keep: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).

Why do we not do this when it is commanded so often, by so many New Testament writers? Unfortunately we may not obey this precept only out of ignorance or apathy. In studying the history of the church we find that there is a better explanation for the reticence of the church to follow this precept to the letter. Unbelievers often misunderstood what was taking place in the agape or “love feast” of the church (communion). They could only think of this in terms of the sexual indulgence common in heathen orgies. The biblical principle “avoid all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) was thus applied and thus the church chose to abstain from the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss. The principle underlying this precept can be understood to be something like this: “visibly express your love for one another.” Since the principle of showing affection for one another can be practiced by other means (e. g. a handshake), Christians have felt no guilt about abstaining from “holy kissing,” especially in our western culture. Once again, distinguishing principle from precept can be of great importance to those who truly wish to be obedient to God in spirit and in truth.

Distinguishing between precept and principle will greatly assist us in avoiding that evil toward which conservative evangelicals are pre-disposed: legalism. Legalism is that tendency to strictly observe the rules, but to forget the reasons, to keep the letter of the Law, but not the spirit of it. Legalism is often related to literalism. While we should take the message of the Bible literally, the principle of a particular commandment may extend beyond the literal words. For example, literalism may view the commandment, “Don’t muzzle the ox …” as applying only to oxen and oxen owners. The principle presses us beyond the literal words without suggesting that they should be ignored. It means that taking God’s word seriously means going beyond the literal words to the principle. Legalism is simply literalism gone bad.

In thinking about my understanding and application of the New Testament, in a number of cases it has been my belief that a “New Testament church” is one which follows the precepts of the apostles and the practices of the churches. By and large this is still true. But my study of the Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament has cautioned me about priding myself in conforming to the precepts and practices of the New Testament without giving serious thought to its principles. For example, the Scriptures have some very specific statements (precepts) about the role of women in the church. I believe that these must be taken seriously. But it is also possible (perhaps not probable, but possible) that following a particular practice found in the New Testament may violate the principle which underlies it.

Let’s take the troublesome New Testament teaching on women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians chapter 11. Some churches feel (with great sincerity and conviction) that women should have their heads covered in church. Others are not sure this passage requires head covering at all. The principle underlying the precept (whatever it may be) is clear in the text—it is the principle of headship (of the Father over the Son, of Christ over the church, of the man over the woman cf. v. 3). It is conceivable that the imitation of the practice of the Corinthian church could, in our day and time, actually violate the principle which their practice applied. Thus, a legalistic imitation and repetition of New Testament church practices could, in some situations, be a violation of New Testament principles. Particular practices must therefore always be observed in the light of biblical principle, not on the basis of tradition alone.

To those who resist this thought as heresy, let me warn you that the Pharisees resisted the thought that working on the Sabbath could be the godly thing to do. To those who would love to find in my suggestion an excuse to set aside every New Testament practice which is either bothersome or culturally offensive, let me remind you that exceptions to biblical precepts (Old Testament or New) are few and far between, and based on solid, soul-searching, agonizing, principle-oriented study. The desire to preserve tradition as well as the desire to abolish it, should be critically evaluated.

Finally, while biblical precepts (positive and negative) provide us with the outside parameters for our conduct, biblical principles are the basis for the ethics which must guide us where precepts cannot.4 The legalist wants to believe that life is guided by only two factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. The legalist thinks that all of life can be lived with a kind of code book in hand. In any given situation there must be a specific rule (precept) which tells him what to do or what not to do. There is a broad black line between what one can do and what one cannot. Whenever there is no rule for a given situation, a new rule is made. Thus, the legalism of the Pharisees, and the endless rules and regulations of Judaism.

Christian conduct is not always legislated, but is guided by three essential factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, ETHICS, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. What I must do. What I should do. What I must not do.

We all have difficulty doing those things we know to be right, and avoiding the things we know to be wrong. Paul’s agony in Romans 7 is familiar to every Christian. But there is another agony which Christians must face: the agony of knowing what is the right thing to do when there is no rule, no precept to tell us what we should do.

Those many things which are neither commanded nor condemned (which included Christian liberties—cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14) fall into the broad category which many would call ethics. Precepts tell us what we must do or not do; principles guide us in discerning what we should do. Principles are therefore absolutely essential to the development of personal Christian ethics.

Many of the most agonizing issues Christians face today are ethical issues. These include: (1) birth control, (2) belonging to a labor union, (3) going on strike, (4) nuclear weapons and their use, (5) going to war/pacifism, (6) capital punishment. In my opinion these and many other questions are ethical issues, which can only be settled on the basis of principle and by the establishment of strong personal convictions (which means, incidentally, that other Christians may come to different convictions). If we learn from our Lord and other biblical writers how to distinguish biblical precepts from biblical principles we shall have the raw materials necessary for developing a system of personal ethics.

May God enable us to apply the lessons which we have learned from our Lord, by His grace and to His glory.

250 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 126.

251 Ibid.

252 Ibid, pp. 124-125.

253 The reader will note that the objectors are not precisely identified. Note, however, that Matthew tells us that Jesus went into “their synagogue” (v. 9), and that “they” (v. 10) questioned. In the light of this and of the overall Sabbath debate in the gospels, I think my suggestion that these were the Jewish leaders has some substance.

254 Some may feel that David and his men are not guilty of Sabbath-breaking, but, more generally, Law-breaking. In His own words, Jesus spoke of David’s actions as “not lawful” (v. 4). From the passage in 1 Samuel 21 and the stipulations governing the consecrated bread in Leviticus 24:5-9 it is possible to infer that the particular day David arrived at Nob may have been the Sabbath. In the first place, the Sabbath was the day when the fresh bread replaced the old (Leviticus 24:8). Thus, the priest would have some available to give David. Secondly, in 1 Samuel 21:5 David uses a “much more” argument to show that “today” his men would be even more certain to be undefiled by contact with a woman.

255 This is indeed interesting, for the account of David’s actions in 1 Samuel reveals some rather dubious deeds, including lying to the priest about the true reason for his appearance and request. If the Jews could see fit to justify David’s actions, in spite of some of his questionable actions, how could they possibly fail to approve of our Lord’s deeds?

0 Luke cites our Lord’s words, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” after His first defense, while Matthew saves it until the second. The problem (if any existed) is solved by the fact that Luke wants us to see that this statement was underlying our Lord’s whole defense, not just one part of it. Thus, it is introduced in Luke, “And He was saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’” (Luke 6:5). This was thus an on-going, repeated thrust of our Lord’s teaching in this confrontation.

1 I realize that this statement opens a virtual “Pandora’s box” and yet it can hardly be denied that this is what happened in David’s case, cited here by our Lord. Fallen man will of course want to consider an inconvenience a cause for setting God’s commands aside and this is not acceptable. Nevertheless, the fact that God’s laws have exceptions (as in the case of David) means that some circumstances do justify a modification of the application of the Law. This will be even clearer later on in this study.

2 To fail to grasp the spirit of the Law is thus to fail to know God as He is, for the Law is the expression of God’s character. Thus, the error of the Pharisees was a distortion of the character and attributes of God. Thus, the second line of Hosea 6:6 reads: “And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

3 Carson argues that the real issue with our Lord was not the fact that He worked on the Sabbath: “The fact that Jesus does not suffer public outrage for His exorcism [Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37] cannot escape notice; perhaps no Pharisees were present, and he could have opposed Jesus’ Sabbath practices (cf. Luke 13:10-17). In what immediately follows, Jesus performs another miracle, one of healing (Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:[3]8-39), and again there is no adverse reaction, although it may be argued that the miracle occurred in the privacy of a home.

“The absence of opposition may, however, have a more comprehensive explanation. Up to this point Jesus has been scrupulous as far as the Torah is concerned, and has not clashed even with the Sabbath regulation of the Halakah. The Halakah was designed to put a fence around Torah while still leaving the people free to perform necessary tasks and (in the majority view) acts of mercy. It is doubtful that any consideration was given in the early stages to the legitimacy of Sabbath miracles, since the regulations dealt with work on the Sabbath. If the Halakic comments about healing were intended to govern medical practitioners and the ministrations of relatives and the like, it is hard to see how Jesus committed any offense at all. It appears, then, that Jesus’ Sabbath practices were not reviled by anyone at first, until oppostion began to mount and Jesus Himself was reviled. At that point, the Sabbath legislation was used against Him, and attacks against Him were rationalized on the basis of the Halakah.” D. A. Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 59.

4 The connection between ethics and principles is one that has been pointed out by R. C. Sproul: “Ethics is a normative science, searching for the principal foundations [principles] that prescribe obligations or ‘oughtness.’ It is concerned primarily with the imperative and with the philosophical premises upon which imperatives [precepts] are based.” R. C. Sproul, Ethics and the Christian (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1983), pp. 9-10 (comments in brackets mine).

Related Topics: Gospels

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